Hill's Chemist

Hill’s Chemist at the Ulster American Folk Park looks at the day-to-day life of an Ulster pharmacist of the 1900s.

This important business was a ‘dispensing chemist’. The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland certified James Hill, the owner of the shop, to sell medicine and dispense prescriptions.

Medicine bought over the counter was cheaper than a visit to the doctor who charged a fee. There was no national health service and no free prescriptions. Often the only affordable source of healthcare was the chemist.

Hill's chemist shopfront

Hill's chemist shopfront

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Hill's chemist early 1900s

Hill's chemist early 1900s

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The Hill family

The Hill family

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The Hill children

The Hill children

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James Hill

James Hill

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McDougall's powder dip

McDougall's powder dip

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Shop interior

Shop interior

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Brass mortar and pestle

Brass mortar and pestle

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Cachet machine

Cachet machine

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Green fluted bottle

Green fluted bottle

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Tincture of Iodine

Tincture of Iodine

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Leech jar

Leech jar

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Slipper bedpan

Slipper bedpan

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Bear grease

Bear grease

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Phrenology bust

Phrenology bust

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Specie jar

Specie jar

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Hill's Chemist

Image: Hill's Chemist shopfront at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
Hill's Chemist shopfront at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

Hill’s Chemist at the Ulster American Folk Park looks at the day-to-day life of an Ulster pharmacist of the 1900s. This important business was a ‘dispensing chemist’. The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland certified James Hill, the owner of the shop, to sell medicine and dispense prescriptions. Medicine bought over the counter was cheaper than a visit to the doctor who charged a fee. There was no national health service and no free prescriptions. Often the only affordable source of healthcare was the chemist.

 

The Town

Image: Hill's Chemist, Strabane, early 1900s OMAFP.SCO2015.63.3 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Hill's Chemist, Strabane, early 1900s OMAFP.SCO2015.63.3 © National Museums Northern Ireland

James Hill's new chemist shop in Strabane received great praise. The private house and business premise was described in a local newspaper as a superior building. ‘The building is worthy of the town and reflects great credit on Mr Hill for having had the enterprise to erect so handsome a structure…standing as it does at a corner it at once attracts the eye’ Contemporary Strabane newspaper.

Mr William Barker, a Derry architect, prepared the plans. Mr David Coyle from Strabane supervised the construction. Mr Coyle also made and designed the solid mahogany entrance door. Musgrave Belfast supplied he ornamental iron gate The painting and glazier work was ‘entrusted to the capable hands of Mr Patrick Gallagher,’ from Strabane.

Image: Postcard of 'Castle Street, Strabane, looking North.' Hill's Chemist is on the left
Postcard of 'Castle Street, Strabane, looking North.' Hill's Chemist is on the left

In the early 1900s, Strabane, with a population of around 5,500, was ‘an enterprising market town’. It had a flax, pork, butter and grain market and regular fairs. It also had a shirt factory and railway links with Derry, Belfast, Dublin and Donegal. Goods also travelled by canal to Derry.

Serious cases of scarlet fever, diphtheria and polio were common in the Fever Hospital in Strabane. Poverty, restricted diet, no antibiotics, little sanitation and poor housing contributed to the commonest ailments, such as tuberculosis, coughs, colds and bronchitis.

 

The Hill family

Image: James and Rebecca Ann Hill with their three children OMAFP.SCO2015.63 © National Museums Northern Ireland
James and Rebecca Ann Hill with their three children OMAFP.SCO2015.63 © National Museums Northern Ireland

In the early 1900s, James Hill lived with his wife and children above their chemist shop in Castle Street, Strabane. Rebecca Ann was his wife. The three children were John McAdam, James Rowland and Margaret Ann. The family had a general servant called Mary Kearney who also lived with them.

Many families who ran their own businesses lived ‘over the shop’. The Hill family had a separate door to their private home onto the street. The shop was so large there was only room for a sitting room on the ground floor. A drawing room upstairs with folding doors formed ‘an apartment, 26 feet 6 inches long by 19 feet wide’ (8m x 5m). The rooms had the latest in marble mantlepieces, tiled hearths and gas fittings. A spacious bay window projected from one end of the drawing room. Above this were the bedrooms, with bathrooms at the back over the kitchen and the store.

 

The Hill children

The three Hill children John McAdam, James Rowland and Margaret Ann OMAFP.SCO2015.63.2 © National Museums Northern Ireland
The three Hill children John McAdam, James Rowland and Margaret Ann OMAFP.SCO2015.63.2 © National Museums Northern Ireland
James Hill's granddaughter Anna, November 1921 OMAFP.SCO2015.11.2 © National Museums Northern Ireland
James Hill's granddaughter Anna, November 1921 OMAFP.SCO2015.11.2 © National Museums Northern Ireland

John McAdam became a doctor and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1918 he married Maude Mackey their children Anna, her sister Margery and brother Ian were born in this house above their grandfather’s chemist shop. Anna the eldest was born in 1919. Her baby sister got diphtheria, a deadly disease especially in young children.‘a white sheet dipped in disinfectant hung over the door. 'I was forbidden to touch it…all my toys were gathered up and burned’ She was only allowed to keep her doll and teddy bear after they were boiled in disinfectant! Her sister recovered and both of them enjoyed growing up in Strabane. Anna also remembered how fussy her father was about their drinking water. The Hill family kept their own cows. Ice cream came from a reliable source in town.

 

Memories of grandfather

Image: James Hill. Courtesy of Anna Holden OMAFP.SCO2015.63.5 © National Museums Northern Ireland
James Hill. Courtesy of Anna Holden OMAFP.SCO2015.63.5 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Anna had fond memories of her grandfather, James Hill. She remembered him sitting on a high stool in his office and giving her boiled sweets from a big glass jar. The sweets, covered in powdered sugar tasted very good.

Her grandfather kept his horse, Rob Roy, in a cobbled yard at the back of the shop. There was also a byre with Jersey cows. Anna and her sister Margery milked the cows. Anna said she, ‘needed a bath to catch the milk’.

In the yard at the back of the shop women in sacking aprons plucked geese and turkeys or bagged potatoes. Sheep dipping and shearing took place twice a year. Anna liked to watch from a nearby stonewall.

Anna was not allowed into certain areas of the shop. James Hill stored large quantities of dangerous powders and poisonous liquids. Anna was told that if she went into the store, ‘Old Flannel Feet’, would get her! This horrible figure loomed so large in Anna’s mind that she never ventured into the store alone.

 

Dangerous drugs

Two boxes of 'McDougall's Powder Dip' to treat parasites in livestock. Advertised as 'Free from Arsenic'.
Two boxes of 'McDougall's Powder Dip' to treat parasites in livestock. Advertised as 'Free from Arsenic'.
Advertisement for 'James Hill & Co., Strabane', from Derry Almanac, 1883.
Advertisement for 'James Hill & Co., Strabane', from Derry Almanac, 1883.

James Hill was well established in Strabane. The Derry Almanac of 1883 lists him as ‘Druggist’. His chemist shop in Strabane held a ‘large stock of pure drugs and chemicals’. It was not unusual for chemists to trade in oil and ‘heavy trade’ such as paint and sheep dip. By the 1880s, dye and chemical companies were discovering medical applications for their products.

Paper label for 'Foot-Rot Liquid'
Paper label for 'Foot-Rot Liquid'
Paper label for 'B.W.D. Scour Remedy for Chickens'
Paper label for 'B.W.D. Scour Remedy for Chickens'

James Hill knew about dangerous drugs and poisons like morphine, quinine and strychnine. In the 1898 Pharmacy Acts only qualified pharmaceutical chemists and druggists could sell the toxic arsenic used to kill vermin in the home.

 

Interior of Hill's Chemist

Image: Interior of Hill's Chemist at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
Interior of Hill's Chemist at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

Messrs’ Evans, Sons & Co Liverpool supplied the rosewood mahogany fittings and English plate mirrors for the interior of James Hill’s shop. Here is how a newspaper article of the time described the interior of Hill’s chemist, ‘that even in London nothing finer could be found in a chemist shop’.The shop is ‘brilliantly illuminated’ by gaslight at night.

The focal point of Hill’s Chemist is the large ‘L’ shaped counter. A dedicated ‘department’ hidden from public view carries out the dispensing operations. The ‘drug run’ drawers are behind the counter. They have painted and gilded glass labels. They hold herbs, roots and powdered chemicals. Glass bottles on the shelves, known as shop rounds, contain different liquids. With the help of a Pharmacopoeia, James Hill would use a combination of these ingredients to treat a particular ailment. In 1901, James Hill had an assistant, a young man from County Wexford, called Charles Fairweather. He helped to parcel up and dispense medicine and also to carry out routine cleaning jobs.

 

A bitter pill

Brass mortar and pestle
Brass mortar and pestle
Mahogany and brass pill machine
Mahogany and brass pill machine

The mortar and pestle was an essential piece of James Hill’s equipment. It is still a symbol for a pharmacy today. The mortar and pestle bruised roots to extract their active principles. It reduced lumpy crystalline solids and dried herbs to a fine powder. Many of these powders had an unpleasant taste. Liquorice powder and liquid glucose improved the taste. This also helped to form a firm but pliable mass. The brass runner of the mahogany pill machine cut this pliable mass cylinder into rough spherical pills.

Pill rounder
Pill rounder
Boxwood double powder measure
Boxwood double powder measure

A pill rounder helped to achieve the final shape. Varnishing, silvering or gilded with gold leaf finished off the hardened pills. Wrapped paper sachet powders were made using a boxwood double powder measure and an adjustable brass folder. These were stirred into a glass of water.

Anna liked to watch her grandfather’s assistants, Robert Wright and Percy Colquhoun ‘making pills’.‘I loved to watch as they made round, white pills on a special ridged board. They told me they were making Hobgoblins, possibly to stop me from thinking they were sweets’.

 

Disguising the taste

Cachet machine, with instructions for use printed inside lid
Cachet machine, with instructions for use printed inside lid
Suppository mould, 15 grain, made by Maw, London
Suppository mould, 15 grain, made by Maw, London

A cachet machine used rice paper filled with powders. This was a big improvement over loose powder which had an unpleasant taste. It also helped to make filling and sealing much cleaner, easier and quicker. Cocoa butter or glycerine and gelatine in bougie moulds made suppositories and pessaries. These were used for human or veterinary use.

Chemist assistants helped James Hill with time-consuming procedures. Robert Chambers from County Down and Alex Stead from County Antrim were chemist assistants in 1911. Chemist assistants may have been unqualified individuals who ran messages or qualified persons learning about the trade. A newspaper advertisement for a chemist assistant states they must understand ‘prescribing and tooth extraction’. In 1868 pharmacies were regulated by law. Pharmacists went through tough examinations to become qualified.

In 1911, Rose Houston from Donegal was also employed as a general servant in the busy Hill household. Hiring fairs were held in Strabane. James Hill’s wife Rebecca remembered that when she was a girl the hired help would demand that they only get salmon to eat a few times a week as it was so plentiful in the rivers.

 

Know by touch

Green fluted 'shop round' used for poison. This bottle contained tincture of belladonna
Green fluted 'shop round' used for poison. This bottle contained tincture of belladonna
Cobalt blue ‘shop round’ with recessed glass label. This one contained compund syrup of iron phosphate
Cobalt blue ‘shop round’ with recessed glass label. This one contained compund syrup of iron phosphate

These bottles are called ‘shop rounds’. They were displayed on the shelves for all to see.

Green glass bottles with moulded vertical lines stored poisons. In a time of dim lights, this made these fluted bottles a lot easier to identify at a touch. If the pharmacist or his assistant was in a hurry, they were less likely to make a mistake!

Blue bottles were popular for syrups. The colour kept out the light which would have affected its contents. The blue glass bottles also had loose-fitting stoppers. This stopped crystallised sugar building up in the neck. They also had wide brims to stop dust getting into the neck.

Clear shop round. This bottle contained tincture of arnica
Clear shop round. This bottle contained tincture of arnica
Bottle with heavy glass dome
Bottle with heavy glass dome

Bottles of volatile liquids had heavy glass domes over their stoppers. If the stopper was blown out in hot weather, it hit the dome and fell back into the bottle.

 

Taking your medicine

Green fluted bottle with James Hill label 'Tincture of Iodine. Poison'
Green fluted bottle with James Hill label 'Tincture of Iodine. Poison'
Dispensing bottle with graduations marked on front
Dispensing bottle with graduations marked on front

As well as selling patent medicines, James Hill sold his own remedies. It might be a traditional remedy he was familiar with or one that he ‘concocted’ himself. ‘Pick-me-up tonics’ are still available in some chemist shops today.

It took skill to combine all the ingredients into an accurate dose. James Hill kept a range of octagonal glass medicine bottles. Graduated on the bottle were the dosage requirements. We are now more familiar with teaspoonful, dessertspoonful and tablespoonful doses. James’s name was moulded in the glass or printed on a paper label. Customers returned bottles.

Cork press
Cork press
Box of 'Quinine Pills'
Box of 'Quinine Pills'

A cast iron cork squeezer made corks for reused glass bottles. They compressed corks to the correct size.

Medicine used a variety of ingredients. From dried bitter orange peel, cloves, hops, senna, to the bark and roots of plants, flowers and plant leaves. These remedies were often high in alcoholic content. Morphine, opium, or cocaine often fortified many concoctions. They were very popular and many believed them to be therapeutic. Very few remedies actually worked for anything other than the slightest problem. In the 1900s, understanding of medicine improved. These treatments became available in the chemist shops.

 

A good tonic

Image: Leech jar, with bottles containing leeches preserved in fluid
Leech jar, with bottles containing leeches preserved in fluid

Chemists kept live medicinal leeches for general use in medicine. Many complaints were treated with leeches including bloodletting. It was believed that ‘bloodletting has a most salutary effect in many diseases’. When applied to the skin they could suck several times their original body weight in blood. They were kept in leech jars with a perforated lid. Although they did treat inflammation, much of their use was a pointless exercise. With a new understanding, leeches have made a modern medical comeback. The ‘worms’ help doctors reattach severed fingers and treat fatal circulation disorders.

'Hippo Wine & Syrup of Squills'
'Hippo Wine & Syrup of Squills'
'Cantharidine Pomade' paper label
'Cantharidine Pomade' paper label

Hippo Wine & Syrup of Squills is an alcoholic spiced wine and dried ‘sea onion’ bulb. It was used as an expectorant and stimulant.

Cantharidin Pomade was an antibacterial type of hair dressing.

 

Progress

Slipper bedpan
Slipper bedpan
'Dorothy' glass infant feeding bottle
'Dorothy' glass infant feeding bottle

James Hill stocked a variety of chemists’ sundries. This included a range of items for young children, the sick or the elderly.

It was much easier to use a slipper bedpan when patient was unable to sit upright in bed.

Hygiene was often non-existent. A child’s glass bottle was a breeding ground for all sorts of diseases. It was one of the leading contributors towards infant mortality.

Nelson inhaler
Nelson inhaler
Feeding or 'pap' cup
Feeding or 'pap' cup

Invented around 1861- 1865, the ‘Dr Nelson’ inhaler treated chest infections. It was still in use in the 1950s.

The ‘feeding cup’ was a great advantage in the sickroom. It is difficult to drink from an ordinary cup while lying flat on your back. This clever design was called a ‘pap’ cup. Perhaps from the sound a baby makes as it feeds from the spout. This type of cup increased the life expectancy of young babies.

 

Smelling sweet

Image: 'Genuine Russian Bear’s Grease for Beautifying & Nourishing The Hair' ceramic pot
'Genuine Russian Bear’s Grease for Beautifying & Nourishing The Hair' ceramic pot

Gentlemen used different kinds of waxes and oils to keep their hair in shape. Hairdressings contained ‘bear’s grease’ and ‘macassar oil’. Housewives protected the arms and backs of chairs with washable cloths called antimacassars. Some trains and aeroplanes still use antimacassars today.

Millions of small ceramic pots were produced. They held creams and ointments for cosmetic purposes. Beeswax and lard, scented with oils of rose and lavender treated skin conditions. They may have been effective for minor skin infections.

 

Image: 'Concentrated Essence of Russian Violets' perfume bottle with cover
'Concentrated Essence of Russian Violets' perfume bottle with cover
'Concentrated Essence of Flowers' paper label
'Concentrated Essence of Flowers' paper label
'Flowers of Ulster' perfume bottle
'Flowers of Ulster' perfume bottle

A standard formula for perfumes had local names such as 'Flowers of Ulster’.

 

The human mind

Image: Phrenology bust
Phrenology bust

Phrenology busts were a popular item for sale in chemist shops. Phrenologists believed that the human mind had a set of different mental faculties. A different area of the brain represented each facility. The shape and unevenness of a head or skull was observed and examined. This could determine an individual's psychological attributes.Lorenzo Niles Fowler was an American. He lectured in Britain in the mid-1860s.Phrenology never found a wide audience in Ireland. As with all popular fads, phrenology became unfashionable. It was discredited as a science.

 

Brilliantly illuminated

Specie jar with elaborate design
Specie jar with elaborate design
Carboy filled with coloured water
Carboy filled with coloured water

This large decorative jar with its gold domed lid is called a ‘specie jar’. It stored magnesia which is still used in medicine today as an antacid and laxative. Large jars with armorial lettering, heraldic colours and gold leaf made eye-catching displays. Later they had no practical function but to look attractive.

By the 1900s, larger sheets of plate window glass were available. This encouraged attractive window displays. When James Hill opened his shop in Strabane a local newspaper praised the window display. ‘...brilliantly illuminated at night by gaslight’, the shop window display of bottles and jars were, ‘placed there regardless of cost’. Contemporary Strabane newspaper.

The pear shaped carboy is a familiar symbol for the chemist and pharmacy. When literacy levels were low, it helped people to come to the right place in an emergency. The carboys in the window of Hill’s chemist may have stored wine or rosewater for medicinal purposes. Filled with coloured water they are now used as decorative items.

Modern paper packaging bags show that even today carboys are still a symbol of the pharmacy.

A tall story from The Pharmaceutical Journal, 1931

“When Julius Caesar invaded Ireland his landing spot was on a shelving shore directly opposite an apothecary’s shop. In the shop windows large bottles containing drugs in the process of softening produced different coloured liquids. On the promise of protection the Roman invaders arranged that this apothecary would place lanterns behind the bottles to guide the landing at night. To commemorate the successful operation, Caesar issued a law that all apothecaries would be honoured by being allowed to use coloured bottles to identify their establishments!”